For many soldiers, the transition from military life to civilian life can be a challenging one. That change is often amplified by injuries sustained in combat — both physical and emotional. Even though the memories of those traumatic events will always be there, some soldiers are able to find solace in rehabilitation programs like Project Healing Waters.
Juan Aguilar is a veteran of six combat tours split between Iraq and Afghanistan.
A bullet wound to the stomach during his final deployment in 2007 is what ultimately brought him back to the U.S., but it was the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that had the biggest impact on his life. Juan suspects he had PTSD after his very first deployment to Afghanistan that started three weeks after the terrorist attacks on 9-11. What he saw in combat shook him.
“It’s kind of a helpless feeling to see young kids die and not be able to help them, and I had one die in my arms. So, you know, it’s pretty nerve wracking, and it finally all hit me at once with the injuries and stuff like that. So, the doctors diagnosed me with that and then with the traumatic brain injury it was more reason for them to not allow me to go back,” Juan said.
After the diagnosis was made, Juan cycled through a few different PTSD treatment programs, and they helped some, but he continued to struggle.
“I thought I was alone with the problems that I had, with the Post Traumatic Stress, and how could this happen to me? I’ve always pictured myself as tough infantry soldier. How could this be? How could this be?” he said.
But in 2009, Juan was introduced to Project Healing Waters while at the Puget Sound VA in Seattle. Not long after, he was attending fly-tying and fly-fishing classes in newly-created Alaska chapter of the program.
Now, he’s hooked.
Some days, he might be at Green Lake, trying to perfect his casting technique. Other days, you might find him sitting at a table in the Soldier Family Assistance Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, tying flies to use on an upcoming fishing trip with a group of people who, not all that long ago, were complete strangers. That may have bothered him a couple years ago, but now he looks forward to it every week.
“It just hit me, you know, it’s like, ‘Wow, I actually enjoy doing that.’ And before, going to where there’s a lot of people in an enclosed room, no, it’s not a good thing for me, but it didn’t seem to bother me; and I came in, walked around, and said, ‘Yeah, this is something I like,’” Juan said.
The atmosphere at the fly-tying class is very relaxed – some people are getting instruction, while others might just show up to shoot the breeze.
Mike Harsh is a board member of Alaska Fly-Fishers, the sponsoring organization of Project Healing Waters in Alaska. He’s been volunteering with the program for a few years.
“It’s just sitting down and talking about fly tying and, ‘Oh man, you should’ve seen the one that got away yesterday,’ and it really brings people kind of out of their shells, and you know we all pretty much have good senses of humor around here. I think that’s infectious; I think they really relax around us,” Mike said.
The national program was established in 2005, but the Alaska chapter is in the middle of its third summer. It started out small, with only a handful of participants its first year, but Juan says it has been steadily growing each year, with about 50 participants now.
The program also organizes fly-fishing trips throughout the summer. Last year, Juan went on a trip to Kodiak where he was able to catch every species of salmon in one week.
“I’ll never forget that trip. It was a great trip. I had a blast the only worry I had was that I had to leave in a week,” Juan said.
Juan says his life has improved since taking part in Project Healing Waters, and recommends it to any soldier who is looking for help.
“There’s so much to gain, there’s not much to give. All you have to do is make the time available to come here and learn, and you can see how the healing process will take it’s hold and start going in the right direction you need,” Juan said.
Since Project Healing Waters has had such a profound impact on Juan’s life, he gives back as much as he can, with the hope that the program can help other soldiers and veterans make a smooth transition to civilian life.